Milt Morris was a young installer of cabinets and shelves nearly 30 years ago when he was called to a job to hang fabric on the walls of a room to cover sound-absorbing padding.
It was a painstaking job: taking pieces of fabric and stuffing them into narrow plastic tracks mounted on the walls. While it was an improvement on the old technique of stapling pieces of fabric to the wall, it was far from perfect. The fabric would often sag or bunch up and often fall off the tracks, trying the patience of even professional installers.
"I thought to myself, 'There has got to be a better way to do this,'" he recalled.
So Morris designed a track system with a hinge that would lock the fabric in place and stretch it automatically, making it much easier to install and to change out when required. The fabric is then placed over the unsightly sound-absorbing padding on the wall.
In 1978, Morris set up a company, Fabric Wallmount Systems; over the years, Morris' track system has found its way onto walls in numerous sound recording studios, ballrooms, auditoriums and concert halls.
Most notably, the track system was used as part of the sound-control makeover of the Staples Center shortly after it first opened to a chorus of criticism about muffled sounds. Fabric Wallmount Systems was brought in as part of a team of acoustical experts to address the sound problems.
"Originally, the arena and the suites had a lot of bare drywall and concrete walls. After the first few concerts, we heard from our performers that there was a lot of 'slapback' of the sound off those hard surfaces," said Lee Zeidman, senior vice president with Anschutz Entertainment Group and general manager of the Staples Center.
As part of a $1 million sound upgrade, Staples Center installers used the Fabric Wallmount Systems track to lock in place tens of thousands of square feet of specially designed fabric hung over sound insulating material on the walls in the arena and in many of the suites.
"It has really made a tremendous difference in the sound. And it's so easy to change out when it gets stained or frayed with wear and tear," Zeidman said.
As with all fabric mounting systems used in the sound control process, the fabric itself transmits sound waves to the material behind it that absorbs them. The material is typically a fiberglass product and the main purpose of the fabric is to hide the view of the sound-controlling padding. Typically, the fabric comes in plain, slightly textured colors.
Up until the 1970s, fabrics were simply stapled into place over the fiberglass padding, which had a rather amateurish look. Then, several companies came out with track systems to mount the fabric. That combined with the spread of digital audio that required more precise sound control led to more widespread use of fabric wall-coverings, especially in larger buildings and sound spaces.
"All the advanced audio and video products have enticed people to improve the acoustical behavior of the surroundings," said Steve Melendez, an independent acoustical control installation expert.
Wall Mount was one of the first companies to come out with a track system that stretches and locks the fabric in place; today, there are a handful of other companies doing the same thing.
For most of Wall Mount's 28 years, the focus has been on the commercial side, including a recent push into overseas markets in Europe and Asia.
Now, Morris is eyeing the burgeoning home-theater market. In recent years, sound control has become a hot item as homeowners spend tens of thousands of dollars to turn their living rooms into the equivalent of movie theaters.
"People spend $100,000 on massive speaker systems and then all the sound just bounces everywhere off of the walls, creating a total mess, sound-wise. It's total nonsense when you spend that kind of money and you don't treat the room for sound," said Michel Hubert, owner of Artisan Acoustics in Seattle.
Not helping is the fact that most homes were never built with sound control in mind, so the sound can get muddled, Melendez said. "You can be watching a movie and not catch all the dialogue simply because the sound bounces off the wall in the wrong way."
Early on, many of those who set up home theaters were hobbyists who didn't care if the acoustic treatment showed, according to Anthony Grimani, president of Performance Media Industries, Ltd., a consulting engineering company based in Fairfax, Calif., that specializes in designing media spaces.
"Today, people don't want their home theater room to look like a sound lab. They want it to look like any other room in the house, but with the ability to handle sound to professional standards. They want it concealed with the upholstered look," Grimani said.
But installing fabric over that material can be expensive and must often be done professionally. What's more, the fabric often comes in pre-cut sizes that may not fit the dimensions of the room.
With Morris' system, the track system is easy for a "do-it-yourselfer" to install, with screws into the wall. Then the sound-absorbing material is placed between the tracks and finally, fabric can be draped over that material and locked into place with the hinge on the track system.
Another advantage: when it comes time to redecorate a home, the fabric can be changed out by simply unlocking the hinges.
Hubert has been using Morris' track mounting system for three years, calling it one of the best on the market. "It's the easiest to install and the sturdiest. Also, because of the way the fabric is locked into place, it does an excellent job of controlling the sound where it first hits the wall."
Morris says one of the main advantages of his product for the home consumer market is that he can sell the track directly to the end user; most other track companies only sell to professional installers. The cost of Morris' track ranges from $1.75 to $2.50 per foot; a typical room might use anywhere from 100 feet to 500 feet of track, depending on the size and configuration of the walls.
But, Morris said, so far he has only made modest inroads into the mass consumer market for use in home theaters. The reputation of his track system has spread primarily through word of mouth from installers and sound control experts, making it primarily a niche specialty product; there has been no tradition of selling track for fabric mounting directly to consumers through such outlets as Home Depot.
Fabric Wallmount Systems LLC
Year Founded: 1978
Core Business: Making the track mounting systems to hang fabric over sound-absorbing materials on walls
Employees in 2005: 4 (including part-time workers)
Employees in 2006: 4 (including part-time workers)
Goal: To increase sales in the home theater market
Driving Force: Desire of owners of auditoriums, recording studios and, increasingly, homeowners to enjoy maximum sound efficiency and integrity
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